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Philanthropists, Lawmakers Behind New Push for College Education

Move comes as criminal-justice policies place more emphasis on preparing inmates for life beyond bars

By Joe Palazzolo 
July 27, 2015  

Philanthropy groups and lawmakers are giving college education for prisoners a fresh look, as criminal-justice policies around the country place greater emphasis on preparing inmates for life beyond bars.

Public funds for college education largely dried up in the 1990s, when Congress rendered prisoners ineligible for federal grants. But in recent years, Doris Buffett’s Sunshine Lady Foundation and the Ford Foundation have contributed millions of dollars to programs that give prisoners the chance to earn college credit. And this year, for the first time, the Kresge Foundation in Troy, Mich., and the Andrew Mellon Foundation awarded grants for such programs, educators said.

Ms. Buffett, whose foundation has supported prisoner education since the early 2000s, described a “surge” in support for prisoner education, adding: “It’s a worthwhile use of money, and it’s going to do what we want it to.”

Between the mid-1990s and 2013, the U.S. prison population doubled to about 1.6 million inmates, many of them repeat offenders, according to Justice Department figures. A 2013 study by the Rand Corp. found that inmates who participated in education programs, including college courses, had significantly lower odds of returning to prison than inmates who didn’t. 
Earlier studies have also showed a strong correlation between education and lower recidivism. 

“There is nothing proven to be less expensive and more effective than college,” said Max Kenner, executive director of the Bard Prison Initiative, which annually enrolls nearly 300 prisoners in degree programs from Bard College in New York.
But spending tax dollars on college education for prisoners strikes many as an affront to families and students struggling to pay for higher education.

“It’s just not the proper use of those funds,” said Rep. Chris Collins (R., N.Y.), who last year introduced legislation that would prohibit the federal government from funding higher education for prisoners. The bill was a response to a proposal by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to use state money to pay for college classes for New York inmates. Mr. Cuomo later abandoned the plan, citing resistance from lawmakers.

“If we really want to keep people out of prison, we need to promote education at younger ages,” Mr. Collins said.
Prisoners received $34 million in Pell Grants in 1993, the year before Congress made inmates ineligible for them, according to figures the Department of Education provided to Congress at the time.

In California, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation in June that includes $12 million to promote statewide priorities, including college classes in state prison, said state Sen. Loni Hancock, whose 2014 bill paved the way for an agreement between California corrections officials and the chancellor of the state’s community colleges. Ms. Hancock said classes could begin as soon as this fall.

The fresh interest in prison education mirrors a broader shift in criminal justice, motivated by a desire to make tax dollars work more efficiently and a backlash against what advocates for reform describe as the dehumanizing effects of incarceration. Dozens of states have passed laws in recent years to restrain prison growth, and more federal and state funds have been diverted to programs aimed at reducing the number of repeat offenders.

“All these things are coming together and creating a higher tolerance for this conversation,” said Jody Lewen, founder of the Prison University Project, which provides college courses for inmates in San Quentin State Prison in California.
Patrick Mims, 51 years old, received his associate degree through Ms. Lewen’s program and exited prison in 2009, after serving 20 years for stabbing a man to death during a fight. Mr. Mims then developed a widely emulated program to combat human trafficking at a nonprofit group and now helps ex-offenders transition back into their communities for Contra Costa County, Calif.

“I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I hadn’t learned how to write and critically think,” said Mr. Mims.

Mr. Mims then developed a widely emulated program to combat human trafficking at a nonprofit group and now helps ex-offenders transition back into their communities for Contra Costa County, Calif.